Part 1 here

Back to this, then.

Maybe I was too hard on Geofferson Aerojohns in my first post. Maybe “Bollocks” was an appropriate response to a room covered in blood and the stink of the supernatural. Bollocks might often carry with it a low level sense of levity, but then John Constantine has had to weather some pretty terrible things in his time. Things worse than a few pints of the red stuff and a black magic chaser. Perhaps, for Constantine, a bit of sardonic humour helps him manage his emotions. Perhaps he just doesn’t respond to scenes of hideous violence in the way that you and I would, his emotional responses deadened after one too many trips to Hell.

Then there’s the complicity angle. Last time I claimed that bollocks often implicates it’s utterer in a given mishap (this is usually bound up, ironically, with the aforementioned levity), and it’s this thread of self-awareness, of self damnation, however subtle, that could elevate last time’s Johnsian moment. I don’t believe for a second that Johns intends me to read the panel in the way that I’m about to sketch – mainly because… well mainly because I think he’s terrible at writing believable human beings, but also because I suspect he doesn’t know the nuances of bollocks from Adam, and for that, as someone who hasn’t grown up with the word, he’s blameless.

So Johnsian considerations notwithstanding it’s possible to read bollocks in the context of that panel as Constantine claiming a share of the guilt regardless – and this is the crux of the issue – of his actual role in the proceedings. It’s as if magic, for Constantine, all magic, is much of a curse at it is a gift. It’s hard not to see the force of this take, after all John’s magical forays have implicated him directly and indirectly in the deaths of more innocents than you could shake a magic wand at, and most writers have painted him as psychologically tormented as a result.

Hellblazer issue 41 – written by Garth Ennis, drawn by Will Simpson

I appreciate that I’m playing a bit of a game here, but my intention isn’t to insist upon some radical subjective reading of the text, I’m just using Johns’ panel to dig into those clichés that have become a shorthand for the character, to see if there’s anything there that can be worked with.  This isn’t a scholarly essay, I very much do not have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Constantine’s history, but I do have ideas about what a well written John Constantine should look like. This, my mindless friends, is wotchacall a meditation. Your mileage may vary, but I hope you’ll agree that my mileage has merit.

Besides, as the panel above and the issue it sits within will attest, my worries about image are central here because the tension between the character’s superficial image and his reality (as much as any character can be said to have a reality) isn’t merely the key to a better understanding of said character, it also describes the world in which he operates. It cuts right to heart of what makes Hellblazer work.

Garth Ennis’s first crack at the comic, issue 41, is not without its faults. It doesn’t quite escape Ennis’s homophobic and sexist tendencies. Say what you like about Thatcher, “whore” strikes me as a rather strange way to describe her, and, on a related tip, the issue as a whole doesn’t quite escape Ennis’s irritating love of a certain sort of blokey masculinity. From a technical point of view Constantine’s internal monologue is a little too on the nose, if reasonably truthful, while Will Simpson’s art is as kitchen sink grimy as it needs to be, but also bizarrely inconsistent and erratic.

Ah, still, the threat that Constantine faces is quintessential Ennis and, in my book, quintessential Hellblazer.

Garth Ennis like any writer worth his salt knows that the important things in life have little to do with magic or superpowers. Or more pertinently to this blog post, in Ennis’s Hellblazer one could say that the important thing *about* magic and superpowers is their rock solid grounding in the dirt of human existence.

This consequentialist approach to magic states that once you cut through all the bollocks you’re left with men and women, some with pointy horns and forked tongues, others with 3 days of stubble and bed-hair, all of them just trying to get by. All of them emotional, all of them by turns stupid, all of them subject to brute cause and effect. Just ask Jessie Custer’s God, or Hellblazer’s Devil, a straightforward character (not a force, or a 23 dimensional space squid, or a mythic presence) who gets royally fucked over by Constantine by the end of the arc.

Ennis’s supernatural, like the carefully crafted image Constantine sketches in second panel above, looks the business, all mysterious and powerful and dangerous, and in a way it is all those things, but ultimately it’s only as dangerous, as powerful, as anything else in a world of events and consequence. It all bottoms out in people. It’s not, to quote the fella, as serious as cancer, or as “incredible”, neither is it as insidious as a “20 or 30 a day” smoking habit.

It’s not magic that’s killed John’s friends, it’s his fucking involvement with it: the people, the culture, and, yeah, the spells. But you could say pretty much the same thing if John were a cop tangling with the mob, just substitute hocus pocus for bullets, blackmail, drug addiction or any of the myriad ways people fuck each over.

Which is more than pertinent when you think about it because, really, John’s best spells have bugger all to do with conjuring, or pretty lights, or darque rituals, or acausality, or monstrous forces, or any of that stuff except in the most superficial way. John Constantine’s best spells are only beholden to that bollocks in as much as an actor is beholden to the stagecraft of his technical colleagues, it’s necessary but it’s by no means sufficient to meet his ends. His best spells, when all in said and done, *are con jobs*, relying on psychological frailties – like the greed and vanity of the Dukes of Hell, desperate to claim Constantine’s soul for their own – and legal loopholes – like the fact that Constantine can sell his soul to as many of them as he likes – to bring down the house.

Ennis’s Devil doesn’t get to drag Constantine down into the firey pit, is forced to heal Constantine’s cancer and keep him alive indefinitely, because if he doesn’t the other Dukes will be forced to go to war over Constantine’s soul.

Magic? Full of big egos and sparkly nonsense. Yeah, Jonny Boy, what a load of bollocks.

In part 3. Bullshit strikes back. That, and why that bloody film is awful.

4 Responses to “Talking bollocks – Garth Ennis’s John Constantine part 2”

  1. The Beast Must Die Says:

    Ennis was about 21 when he started writing Hellblazer I think.

    Bastard.

  2. Zom Says:

    Jesus. He did a very good job

  3. Botswana Beast Says:

    Yeah, I’ve just double-checked and bloody hell, you forget. True Faith wasn’t very good, but he was fuckin’ eighteen when he wrote it.

  4. darquehex Says:

    There’s a part 3 mentioned here but I can’t find it. Was it ever written? Thank you.

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